I Am Not a Gadget: An Appeal for the End of Anonymity in Online Education

I’m currently preparing for a faculty training session (iTeach) meant to help faculty integrate technology into their teaching in meaningful ways. I’m enjoying the process of planning the curriculum for teaching the teachers, mostly because I myself have only recently made the somewhat painful transition from teaching in the face-to-face classroom to an entirely online environment, and I know all too well the misconceptions and apprehension that most faculty feel at the prospect of moving their courses online, in whole or in part.  Whether new-to-online-teaching faculty recognize it or not, they are probably terrified of losing their identity to an amorphous classroom where they are disengaged from the students and, more problematically, disengaged from their own sense of personal pride in leading young minds to the well of human knowledge and wisdom.  Pardon me for being hyperbolic about it, but any teacher who feels he or she was called to the profession has experienced the pride that comes with not only knowing that you’ve expanded and shaped a young person’s mind, but the satisfaction that the student also knows you were responsible for it.  It’s a two-way street, this relationship with students.  I remember how I felt about the teachers who introduced me to new and challenging ways of seeing the world, and I loved them for it and always will.  I’m not ashamed to admit that acquiring the admiration of students is a real and important part of the satisfaction I get from teaching.  I’d like to tell you that my motivation for teaching is purely altruistic, but it just isn’t true.  Of course there is the intrinsic value of sharing and instilling a love of literature, but for me that isn’t enough… I need feedback from my students as much as they need feedback from me. However, that feedback loop still is not as present as it should be or could be in the online classroom.

The online classroom is still in its infancy and frankly, I’m not that great with infants.  Yet being involved at the forefront of the emerging world of online education  is also exciting; I’m in a position to help shape the future of the online classroom, if only in a small way.  It seems to me that we could go in any number of directions with the field at this point and there are lots of exciting things happening with asynchronous tools: cognitive tutors, an ever-expanding variety of iTunesU content, and Khan Academy-style instruction. But I keep coming back to this question: What about me? What about faculty and their need to feel part of a learning community? We spend most of our time talking about how to make eLearning more effective and engaging for students, but what if we’re asking the wrong question. What if the question we should really be asking is “How can we make this more engaging and effective for the teacher?” If a faculty member feels that he or she has become nothing more than a paper grader, that dissatisfaction will ultimately trickle down to the students.  Students will invest only as much time as one needs to invest in creating a disposable product that will be evaluated, scored, and discarded into a digital landfill by some invisible paper grader. Is that education? Is that higher education? Absolutely not. This dystopic vision, like all dystopias however, is only a possible future and one that I hope to help avoid.

So how do we create an online classroom where I matter?  How do I create an online classroom where I’m having just as much fun as I did in the face-to-face classroom?  Lecturing, and the discussions that ensue, are fun, especially when a student realizes that he can challenge me.  I lived for the days when some kid who’d been skeptical all semester about my approach finally asked a question that challenged my authority to interpret a text, because it was only then that the kid realized he too could interpret literature, that he could have his own ideas about what Joyce meant when he ended “Araby” with Stephen’s disillusionment over love.  This is a big moment for any student, and it’s a always a big moment for me as well. Although I’ve tried to generate that exchange in the online version of my lit course, I have yet to experience that kind of illuminating and gratifying real-time exchange.  And rather than throw my hands up and insist that online education is an intellectually bankrupt endeavor doomed to a dystopic future, I choose to believe that something else is possible, I just haven’t figured out what it looks like yet.

I’ve just started reading You Are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto by Jaron Lanier.  I’m only on page 21, but I’m already enamored of Lanier’s framing of the book.  Although he’s talking about the larger impact of Web 2.0 on our culture, he taps into what I believe is one of the driving forces behind faculty discomfort with online courses: the loss of identity for the teachers themselves.  The ubiquity and ease of anonymity on the web is both liberating and terribly alienating.  Like any good manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget provides a list of “what each of us can do” bullet points that I think, if we apply them to online behavior in education specifically, can help create an environment that treats faculty and students alike humanely and will create a social fabric rather than web of anonymous commenters.  Not only is this list good advice to those of us engaging in online culture, but it can be aimed at online educators specifically.  If you are a teacher, try following these guidelines so that you don’t disappear into anonymity in your own classroom and become only a paper grader, and think about using this list as standards for student behavior as well.

  • Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.
  •  If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to help attract people who don’t yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.
  • Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.
  • Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.
  • Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.
  • If you are Twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.

Claiming and sharing your identity online reinforces the fact that you are a unique individual who matters.  In other words, like me, you are not a gadget.

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